Cooking As A First Language

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By Cristina Carreon

When Lauren McElwain moved to Tupelo a few years ago, she didn’t know there was a microcosm of women of different cultures right outside her new backyard.

It is easy to wonder about the cultures of the women in front of you in line at the coffee shop, next to you at yoga class or pulling up behind you in the carpool line at school.

It may be pozole verde hominy soup from Mexico or a noodle dish with eggs and veggie khichuri cooked in a dorm room in Bangladesh during medical school. Food means something different to each of us.

Food can wrench you back to a forgotten memory, reacquaint you with your own cultural heritage or bring you close to loved ones and new friends. So it should be no surprise that those who love to cook also love to share their cooking stories with others.


The Cooking as a First Language classes started after McElwain began attending English as a second language classes at First Baptist Church Tupelo in early 2017.

The cooking lessons are typically hosted at the Wellness Center in Tupelo, and to keep attendees entertained while they wait for food to be cooked or ingredients to be prepped, the group has developed a means of learning about cuisines between those periods of waiting.

At the class, a packet is provided for attendees with the recipes and further information about ingredients used in them.

Emily Williams started coming to the classes as a “date night” option. Williams’ father was a chef at Nestle and her mother loved mixing up experimental concoctions in the kitchen at home.

“Our family jokes that my father spent so much time becoming a chef and working with Nestle, but after my mom’s cooking surpassed his in virtuosity, he relinquished the kitchen reins to her,” Williams said.

Williams works behind the scenes at Cooking as a First Language, developing cooking lessons, prepping food and setting up the classroom, or just holding McElwain’s daughter Phoebe while her mama works.

At a recent class, Williams devised a “spice board” for an Indian/Pakistani class which highlighted spices typically used in those cultures.

“While many would know what cinnamon and cumin were, very few locals would be familiar with everything composing garam masala and various curries,” Williams said.

Coordinating with Sunita Prasad and Misbah Ullah, Williams came up with a list of frequent spices used in the native dishes, researching how those spices grew, where they came from, what they were used for and what health purposes they might have. Prasad also brought extra dishes of spices to allow the class to see and smell ones not included in the recipes.

Since her first class, Williams has learned how to use a wok, make square Japanese omelets, fry samosas and eat with her hands. She has learned Hindi cuisine excludes beef while Muslim cuisine excludes pork. And that while people may be different culturally, they will still open their homes to teach a new friend their favorite childhood recipes.

“I love hearing refrains of Spanish, Korean, Arabic, Bengali, Japanese, Portuguese and English mingling and wafting across the sizzle of oil on a frying pan because it embodies what this group means to me: negotiating culture and language to make meaningful connections through the shared enjoyment we derive from cooking,” Williams said.


Meet the Cooking As A First Language Teachers

From Pakistan to China to Bangladesh, these Tupelo residents love to share their culture with others through cooking. Click the photos to read each profile.